German industrialist Oskar Schindler is well known today (thanks to a 1993 Steven Spielberg movie) for saving the lives of more than 1,000 of his Jewish employees during the Holocaust. However, Schindler’s story and involvement in the Nazi party is more complex than its Hollywood portrayal.

Oskar Schindler's Life before World War II

Born a Catholic of German ethnicity in 1908 in what is today the Czech Republic (formerly Austria-Hungary), Oskar Schindler attended multiple trade schools and then spent several years attempting to establish himself as a businessman, doing everything from selling government property, to starting a driving school, to selling farm equipment.

As an ethnic German living in what was then the Sudetenland, Schindler subscribed to the Nazi Party belief that Germany should annex this territory, and in 1936, began working for Amt Auslands/Abwehr: the German Armed Forces’ Office of the Military Foreign Intelligence.

“Evidence that he worked for the German military counterintelligence before the war is usually overlooked,” says Amy Randall, a history professor, and chair of the history department at Santa Clara University.

More recently, evidence has surfaced suggesting he had a much larger role. “There does seem to be some indication that he was involved in helping to justify the invasion of Poland, but I don't know enough about the accuracy of those charges,” Randall explains.

This evidence comes from historian David M. Crowe’s 2004 book Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind The List—which many historians and others who study the Holocaust consider the most thoroughly researched and complete account of Schindler’s life. This was thanks, at least in part, to the discovery of new papers providing additional information and details about Schindler. 

According to Crowe, documents he reviewed from the archives of the Czech secret police referred to Schindler as "a spy of big caliber and an especially dangerous type," and indicate that he was the leader of a German unit that planned the invasion of Poland.

Regardless of the extent of Schindler’s involvement, the Czech counterintelligence unit arrested and imprisoned him in 1938—though he was released later that year after the Munich Agreement permitted Germany to annex the Sudetenland. In early 1939, Schindler became an official member of the Nazi Party, though his motivations for doing so remain unclear.

“For me, the question is how much of it was out of a belief in Nazi ideology, versus, as some people have suggested, that as a businessman, he was pragmatic, and saw this as an opportunity to do well under the new regime, in a new reality,” says Randall.

The Emalia Factory in Kraków

Wasting no time, Schindler relocated to Kraków in October 1939, after Germany had invaded and started occupying Poland. “He moved into an area where a lot of factories and industries had been shut down or Aryanized,” Randall explains, referring to the Nazi policy of seizing Jewish-owned property and transferring it to non-Jews. 

Schindler took advantage of this program within a month of arriving in Kraków, purchasing a formerly Jewish-owned enamelware factory, known as Emalia. “Jews were herded into ghettos and also into camps and subcamps, where companies were able to employ them without paying them anything, and utilize their work,” Randall explains. 

Initially, the factory manufactured kitchenware for civilians and the German army, but later expanded into the production of munitions. Though Schindler did employ local Polish workers, Isaak Stern, his Polish-Jewish accountant, advised him that he could cut costs, and in turn, increase his profits, by hiring Jewish laborers. 

“Once he started doing that, he came to have some sympathy for their plight—while making money,” Randall explains. Also, though it was a highly unusual business practice, Schindler employed children and elderly individuals to keep them from starving to death in the ghettos, she adds.

German forces liquidated Kraków’s ghettos in March 1943, relocating Jews to Plaszow, a forced labor camp later converted into a concentration camp. Through a combination of bribes and his connections within the Nazi regime, Schindler got permission to establish a Plaszow subcamp on the grounds of his factory, housing approximately 1,000 Jews in sanitary conditions, and providing them with food.

By expanding his factory to include the manufacturing of military weapons and ammunition, Schindler was able to make the claim that his Jewish workers were essential for wartime production.

Schindler’s List

When the Jews working in the Emalia factory were transferred to Plaszow in the fall of 1944, Schindler lobbied for and was granted permission to relocate his munitions manufacturing operations to Brünnlitz (Brněnec), a town near where he grew up in what was then the Sudetenland, where it would be classified as a subcamp of the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. 

He also made the case that the Jewish laborers who had staffed his Kraków factory were essential to his wartime production, and needed to come with him to Brünnlitz. Approximately 800 men and between 300 and 400 women were transferred to the factory in Brünnlitz because their names appeared on what’s come to be known as “Schindler’s List”—which, according to Crowe, was actually nine lists. Marcel Goldberg, a corrupt member of the security police and a Jew, was responsible for creating four of the lists, Crowe writes in his 2004 book, while the people behind the other five remain unknown. 

Schindler’s direct involvement was limited to suggesting a few names for the lists, Crowe explains, noting that he didn’t know most of the people included on them. Ultimately, though, the authorship of the lists is one detail of a plan that resulted in more than 1,000 people avoiding almost certain death in concentration camps.

Schindler's Wife, Emilie

Though her role is often diminished, or omitted from the narrative altogether, Schindler’s wife Emilie (who wed the businessman in 1928) was also involved in saving the lives of the Jewish factory workers, Randall says—particularly after the establishment of the factory in Brünnlitz.

“Emilie played a critical role in ministering to the Jews,” she explains. “She apparently was very involved in healthcare, even managing to get some medical supplies, as well as in terms of procuring the food and a lot of basic resources that were necessary to support these people during the many long months until the war ended.” 

In addition to her day-to-day contributions to the lives of the Jews in Brünnlitz, Emilie Schindler was also involved in some of the more well-documented events at the factories. One such instance took place in January 1945, when two cattle cars arrived at Brünnlitz containing  roughly 120 Jewish men who had been sealed inside without food or water for the seven-day trip from Goleszow, a subcamp of Auschwitz. 

Emilie stopped the SS camp commandant before the train departed for its destination: Auschwitz. “She and Oskar convinced the SS that they needed these workers in their factory,” says Randall. Emilie then helped to care for the roughly 107 men who made it to Brünnlitz, frostbitten and starving, but still alive; the other passengers had frozen to death. 

After the War

Both Emilie and Oskar Schindler remained in Brünnlitz until the end of the war in May 1945. They moved to Regensburg, Germany, where Oskar attempted to revive his career as a businessman. “He tried different ventures, but they weren't very successful,” says Randall. “He was supported in part by the Jews who had survived under his watch or their relatives, but then went to Argentina.” 

The Schindlers both immigrated to Argentina in 1949, though Oskar returned to Germany within a few years, where he lived until his death in 1974. Schindler’s remains were then brought to Israel, where he was buried in the Catholic Cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Oskar Schindler’s Legacy

Since his death, Schindler’s legacy has continuously evolved, says Sean Stewart, a historian and educator specializing in 19th and 20th century Central and Eastern Europe, and the founder of Berlin Historical Walks. “In the years following the war, he wasn't remembered at all in society at large, or by history,” he explains. “Those he saved remembered him well, but this was limited by and large to the circle of people he knew and who had interacted with him directly or indirectly.” 

While those familiar with Schindler today may find that surprising, Stewart stresses that his story isn’t one-of-a-kind.

“Schindler was one of many people across Europe, including Krakow, who got into business due to the war, or who otherwise profited from it,” he explains. “Clothing and supplies for the military and occupation forces were a big business. Some of them protected their workers for various reasons; many more did not.”

For this reason, Schindler’s story didn’t particularly stand out in the decades after World War II, apart from recognition from Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to those killed in the Holocaust.

However, this began to change in 1982 with the publication of Thomas Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s List. Though Keneally used documentation available at the time, as well as interviews with multiple Holocaust survivors to research his book, it is a work of historical fiction. It’s also the source material for the film Schindler’s List

Schindler’s legacy and the 1993 movie are inextricably linked. “Three decades after the film['s release], the modern public by and large knows the character, and not the real man," says Stewart. 

Since its release in 1993, Schindler’s List has been criticized for minimizing Schindler’s shortcomings, from downplaying the extent of his philandering, to suggesting that he underwent a linear transformation from a greedy opportunist looking to profit from the war, to a humanitarian who lamented the lives he couldn’t save.

Ultimately, though, Randall and Stewart both see the value of a movie that can provide its audience with a deeper understanding of the Holocaust: something that had been largely absent from popular culture prior to the release of Schindler’s List.

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